How does a country so small, churn out more creative ideas and talent per capita than groups of larger countries combined? What is the secret to this mysterious country’s creative pulse, resilience and what is at the core of their creative motives? I have spent the past few months traveling far-and-wide, from Europe to Asia, discovering different countries creative landscapes and design communities. During those travels I had the opportunity to visit Design March Festival in Reykjavik, Iceland at the beginning of the month. I have always been intrigued with this Nordic Island country’s mysterious source of creativity and the carefree ingenuity of it’s citizens. Is there something in that geothermal water? Volcanic fumes?
What I discovered during my stay in Reykjavik was a strong local community who supported one another’s endeavours and seemingly worked together, rather than competing with one another on developing their projects and businesses… A concept so foreign from my own upbringing in the cut-throat shark-tank of competition on steroids: New York. This only made the unique atmosphere of the capitol city all the more intriguing for me.
After spending way too much time laying in bed and pseudo-philosophising (without even being stoned) about the unique creative climate of Iceland, I remembered a book I read last year by Eric Weiner about the source of happiness in different cultures, ‘The Geography of Bliss’. The chapter on Iceland is simply titled, ‘Happiness is Failure’. Weiner concludes that Iceland, a country consistently ranking as one of the world’s ‘Happiest Countries’, finds its success in the ability to fail. Wait… what? No, but think about it: In other countries such as the United States or in France, if you fail it is seen as a huge embarrassment therefore leading to social criticism and down right misery. This stunts many of it's citizens (in comparison to the amount of people per capita, in Iceland, exploring their ideas) from taking creative risks for fear of failure. Apparently, in Iceland it is no big deal to fall flat on your face and fail miserably because they give you props for trying in the first place… Icelanders dare to explore ideas, endeavours or career changes they may want to pursue. How does this relate to what we cover - which is furniture and design, might you ask? Well if the Icelanders aren’t afraid of trying new things and they aren’t looking to compete with their neighbour to be ‘THE BEST’’, it means that you see new concepts, processes and methods being comfortably explored and challenged in their design.
Another element influencing the creative output in design, in Iceland, are constraints and limitations. Iceland being a small island between Europe and the Americas, far up north, means that they do not have a lot of options for local vendors, manufacturers or material collaborators. Does it get in their way? No, in fact it pushes them to be more creative and resourceful in their creative process. You’ll notice that many creatives, closely tied and inspired by their unique lunar landscape, use the materials and textures from their local environment to realise their designs and projects.
In terms of trends and aesthetics I noticed coming from the creative design landscape in Iceland, I would characterise the design as eclectic, artisanal, sustainable. One thing I noticed was that you could feel sometimes beautifully imperfect details and the energy and hand of the maker in the pieces. Let's have a look at what we discovered during Design March, the key Icelandic deisgners to look out for and our guide to where you have to go when you are in town!
Iceland's annual design week, Design March, celebrates everything from homegrown furniture and product designers, fashion designers, architects and graphic designers. I've been to many-a-design-week in my time and I have to say, in true fun loving Icelandic fashion, Design March was certainly the most debaucherous, unassuming and fun design weeks I have ever attended. One of my favourite aspects of the design week was that it seemed as though all corners of the capitol city came alive for the event and we got a chance to really get to know the local creatives featured.
We went around the city by foot, visiting designers in their ateliers, local museums, exhibitions and shops celebrating local design. It was refreshing to spend laidback days and evenings with the creatives where we could talk about and see their work while getting into a bit of trouble, on the side, at the same time. From waking up and walking to the first exhibitions of the day in downtown Reykjavik with stunning mountain ranges in the background, (quite literally) bumping into Björk at the National Design Museum to taking selfies with the gracious and super funny president of Iceland, Guðni Jóhannesson, at his home over one too many glasses of champagne, making new friends floating around in the Blue Lagoon, seeing Mùm's lead singer singing and playing guitar, topless, in the window of a clothing shop - It felt like anything was possible in Reykjavik. There was somewhat chaotic spontaneity in the air, alcohol galore and a whole lot of creative eccentrics in one place (myself included).
Design Week in Iceland proved to not only serve as a vitrine into the local creative community and a nonjudgemental environment to exchange ideas - but the occasion to show us that the hospitable Icelandic people, who felt like old friends after just four short days, definitely know how to party. Design March was a truly unique and inspiring experience that I am so happy to have had the chance to be apart of, even if I needed a day in bed upon my return back to Paris to get over it.
One of my favourite events during the design week, was 'Design Talks', a symposium around the topic of design's power and potential to contribute to every aspect of society. We heard truly inspiring and oftentimes hilarious talks from some of Northern Europe's most celebrated and forward thinking creatives.
I loved hearing Tekla Severin talk about her professional evolution, Matylda Krzykowski's playful gameshow of 'Design Date' and I don't know if whether it was Bea Szenfeld or Henrik Vibskov who made me laugh more/make me want to force them into a best friend situation. Here is a roundup of a slightly more detailed look on some of my favourite, of the thought provoking talks on the future of social design:
Paul Bennett (Chief Creative Officer, IDEO) Paul Bennett is the CCO of IDEO, a global design company committed to creating positive impact through design. Paul's more than charming personality, took serious and complex topics, broke them down into a bitesize digestible simplicity which allowed him to completely move and engage the audience in the short amount of time that he was on stage. His work and mission was about design being able to change governments to be more citizen-centered and how design can make civilisations connect and function more seamlessly.
Marjan van Aubel (Solar Designer) Award winning Dutch Solar Designer, Marjan van Aubel, introduced us to the world sustainability x technology in design. In collaboration with scientists, engineers and institutions, Marjan works to promote extreme energy efficiency through design. She presented us with a series of products and material applications which harness the sun's energy to power the technology we use on a daily basis. After her talk, it was hard to believe this technology she has developed is not being applied and used as a standard worldwide.
Kaave Pour (Creative Director and Co-Founder of SPACE10) Kaave Pour is the 28 year old co-founder and creative director of Copenhagen based SPACE10, a future living lab on a mission to enable a better and more sustainable way of living. He gave a more than impressive insight into his SPACE10's work exploring trends and new directions through the themes of circular societies, digital empowerment and co-existence. From restaurants which grow the food they serve you (talk about supporting local producers...) to augmented reality being able to aide us in our personal interior designing endeavours, their projects were among some of the most innovative and thought provoking I have come across in a long time.
Anton & Irene (Interactive Design Duo) After a late night in a very random Irish Pub in downtown Reykjavik with Irene; I was so blown away to actually learn what her creative studio did while she was on stage at DesignTalks the next day (because to be honest who talks about work while drinking, in Europe). New York based, Anton & Irene, are hands-on designers working between the realms of digital, products, UX, photography and design research. They gave a talk about a specific project 'One Shared House' they did (in collaboration with SPACE10) which is a radical experiment in communal living. With most people living in big cities these days, in a difficult economy and high rental prices: co-living is more prevalent than ever. Their experiment takes a look at what we are willing to share in our living environment on a day-to-day basis. Participate here!
Object and Furniture Designers
1 plus 1 plus 1
One of the most curious local design studios I found, 1 plus 1 plus 1 had quite an innovative communal approach to their company structure and creative process. The design studio is an experimental collaboration between designs from three Nordic countries, Hugdetta from Iceland, Petra Lilja from Sweden and Aalto+Aalto from Finland. The studio imagines each product project in a completely collaborative approach, each member designing an element of the object which can be interchanged to create unpredictable combinations. At the start of each project, a set of rules are agreed upon yet no information is shared during the creative process in order not to influence one another’s design work. It’s the first time I see a collective work in this way and the only thing I can say is that it embodies every idea I had about the collaborative and experimental spirit of the creative landscape of Iceland.
You may have remembered that I was gushing over my finding the candy-hued-resin work of Ragna during last year’s Design Parade at Villa Noailles. I loved that her pieces were somehow reminiscent of ancient Greek vessels although with a psychedelic, new age and very colourful spin. Working around the intersection of design, art and craftsmanship Ragna experiments with new processes of production and creation. She approaches her work in an imaginative and innovative way, embodying the fearless and carefree spirit which is seemingly at the essence of Icelandic Design.
I had been speaking to Hanna Whitehead on Instagram for a little while, so it was so nice to finally put a face to a name. As a Design Academy Eindhoven veteran, one could already suspect that she is going to have an experimental and innovative perspective when approaching her creative process. Focusing on a hands-on approach, Hanna works in a very personal way interweaving story, shape, culture, materials and color. What I love about Hanna’s pieces are that they can be playful yet sleek in almost any interior and you can really feel the soul and handcraft of the designer in each piece.
Her very spontaneous (they just casually threw together the planning for the set design of this exhibit 24-48 hours before the doors opened) exhibition entitled ‘Illikambur’ with fashion designer, Milla Snorrasson , was one of my favourite discoveries during the design week.
Of course the first designer I randomly meet at a party is the one French person living and working in Iceland - who actually happened to embody almost all of the characteristics I described as ‘Icelandic Design’. Innriinnri, made up of French designer Raphaël Costes and Dutch designer Ylona Supèr, focus’ on Iceland’s natural resources by researching the materials the island has to offer and then showcasing them in new and innovative ways. They are interested in not only producing a quality final product but celebrating and showing the research of materials and creative process along the way. I loved that they source materials locally not only drawing inspiration from the island’s landscape and environment but the sustainability of creating work in that way.
Sometimes when design or fine art gets too conceptual in backstory and ‘depth’, I tend to think that artist is an ego-driven pseudo-intellectual wanker and I roll my eyes a little bit and walk away. Theodora Alfredsdottir is the EXACT opposite of that, making meaningful conceptual design that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
I had the nicest first impression of the warm Theodora who surprised me with the concept behind what I had at first, only seen as beautiful geometrical sculptures. She is interested in the way an object can act as a documentation of it’s manufacturing process; a visceral proof of the craftsmanship, production, tools and material which went into its original form. So basically, these sculptures we see here are extensions the life of the original intended object by creating playful new art forms and sculptures from the recycled product’s moulds. Its aim is to raise awareness about the material world around us, the making of objects, their origin and value.
Studio Flétta, made up of designers Birta Rós Brynjólfsdóttir and Hrefna Sigurðardóttir, approach their design process in a playful, experimental and sustainable way.
I was instantly attracted to their candlesticks, merely by the aesthetic aspect, when I first saw them displayed in local shop in downtown Reykjavik, MUN Studio. That lust reached full fruition once I heard the quirky and ingenious story behind these pieces which could easily see being sold as collectible fine art product design. The idea behind the series was to create each candlestick in under one minute, in order to minimise production time and therefore making it affordable to to produce the pieces locally in Iceland. Studio Fletta epitomises the idea I put forth earlier In the article about Icelandic Design being master creative problem solvers due to the constraints which come with living on rather isolated island country.
Continuing on the theme of sustainability (I know this keyword is overused and worn out by now but these designer’s ideas are not !), we meet homegrown product brand Folk. Their aim is create a range of products focused on sustainability, responsibility and transparency around the production process. What I really liked about Folk’s product line when I discovered it was that it was simple in aesthetic yet that there were many different functions for each piece. With an aim to minimise negative environmental and social impact in the design and manufacturing process on top of minimalistic, sleek design - you can’t not get behind this authentic local brand.
Between the bright neon lights, gritty artsy neighbourhoods in Seoul such as Itaewon and Seongdonggu, the outgoing and hospitable vibes from the local people - Seoul has quickly become one of the most inspiring creative capital cities globally. I wanted to highlight a few of game-changing creatives coming out of Seoul at the moment, locally grown lifestyle brands by young entrepreneurs and some of my favourite spots to check out when I am in town.